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Learning about the equal sign: Does comparing with inequality symbols help?

Journal of Experimental Child Psychology
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2010.03.004
  • Math Learning
  • Comparison
  • Elementary School
  • Equal Sign
  • Math Education
  • Conceptual Development
  • Mathematics


Abstract This study investigated whether instruction that involves comparing the equal sign with other relational symbols is more effective at imparting a relational interpretation of the equal sign than instruction about the equal sign alone. Third- and fourth-grade students in a comparing symbols group learned about the greater than, less than, and equal signs and had the opportunity to compare the inequality symbols with the equal sign. Students in an equal sign group learned about the equal sign only. A third group of students served as a control group. Three aspects of students’ knowledge were assessed before and after the lesson: (a) conceptual understanding of the equal sign, (b) equation encoding, and (c) problem solving. Students in the comparing symbols group showed greater gains in conceptual understanding from pretest to posttest than students in the other two groups, and students in the comparing symbols group also scored higher on a posttest that assessed knowledge about inequality symbols and inequality problem solving. Thus, they learned about three symbols in the same amount of time as other students learned about the equal sign alone or not at all. Therefore, an instructional approach involving comparison can be an effective tool for learning about concepts in mathematics.

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